Saturday, February 24, 2007

Being (with) Lewis Greenberg #1

I finally caught up with Lewis Greenberg this past Saturday during the friggin rain fest that proved again, Thrasher one up'd me by getting out on Friday while I worked until 5:30 trying to scrape out a living.

Lewis eagerly invited me over to visit with him at his home in Ballwin, which is meticulously maintained and a work in artistic progress. From the Barn, he lives pretty close, we are neighbors that way. It is absolutely incredible, his property; a year round display of psychedelic, tie die, abstract Donner and Blitzen on acid deco, encircling the house, right in the heart of West County St. Louis. Prepare yourself for some culture, some cultural diversity. Leave your conservative right wing boots in the beamer. Do what you got to do to relate.

It is a long strange trip "being" with Lewis Greenberg, definitely a product of the drug years, the Vietnam war period, the Warhol years. He is an activist, an atheist/Jew (whatever the hell that means) who grew up in University City. He attended "Delmar Harvard", he says. Hero's include Bob Dillon (Lewis refers to him as Robert Zimmerman, his real name), Andy Warhol, Ed Bradley, any of the 50,000 Jews in St. Louis or 50 million Jews in the states. There are many things that have influenced his life and he is willing to share, I will cover a bunch of it along the way. At one point during our visit, Lewis jumped up, ran to the window and said "look, you see that f*%#@ SUV out there? You see how slow it goes? There are 40% of the people that love my stuff, the rest want to send the police over". He tossed around the idea of putting a sign out front that said "honk if you like the art". But says that is selling out, certainly not original, and doesn't fit. Lewis is truly original.

Lewis says community conflict happens because of "cultural depravity". He has gotten in to trouble a few times with the city of Ballwin, nothing too serious, never been in jail, when the guns and handcuffs come out, he knows when to turn it off. They hit him from all sorts of angles, refuse laws mainly, licensing, ordinances on lighting, lawn care, stuff like that.

The city of Ballwin has its issues, much too many to bother with the likes of Lewis if you ask me. But that is my commentary and I will save it for another story. They seem to understand him, keep him in check the best they can. Lewis seems OK with that.

Nope, Lewis is smarter than those who can hurt him. He lives on the edge. He says he usually wins the battles with the city, the neighbors, the people he comes in to contact with. He knows the law, knows the names of every policeman, city administrator, neighbor, what they do, where they work, what side of the fence they sit on. He knows who is against him and who is with him. He hates anything that is considered on the fence. So be warned. He never backs down, he gets in your face to push you off the fence. "It is not because I can hurt them (or would), it is because I will never shut up" says Lewis. That is why he wins.

Not surprisingly, there is a for sale sign in the yard next door. Lewis doesn't have anything good to say about his neighbor, and would buy the house in order to expand his exhibit, if he could. He says that his neighbors attitude changed through the years, that his neighbor became bitter as his art grew. For me, it kind of sucks being on the fence on this one. If I take the side of the neighbor, I risk loyalty to my new friend and enter the argument process with Lewis, that of the "culturally deprived", the "conforming pieces of shit" concept that we work shopped for an hour or two. To engage him on this would take a while, and I would ultimately lose, as his neighbor has. To take the side of Lewis is a little more hip, much more fun and a front seat ticket on the Screaming Eagle on opening day. Prior to 2001, before Lewis's wife left him because she was afraid of him, the artwork was confined to the interior of Lewis's home.

Once you engage Lewis, you are going to be there for a while. That's why I like him and have been intrigued since the first time I met him back in 02. It is hard not to want to exploit Lewis. Put him in a parade, put a video together to capture and edit his run away orations, make some money on him. Fact is, he has done all that. He worked for many years, showing his art, exhibitions all over the world. He stopped because it was too conforming, not real enough. Those were the depressed years, the years with his wife, his family, the dark years, according to Lewis. He has freedom. Now that they are gone.

I suppose I have the patience to deal with him, and I like to laugh with him, at him, he likes it when he can let it fly, tell his stories, work through some of the fragments that need to be placed in order. He enjoys the reactions that he gets from people on certain "situations". He likes loyalty. He likes to circle-talk, most often coming back to his family, his wife and son, who is an attorney in Jacksonville Florida. He has not spoken with him since August 11, 2001, in an apartment in Times Square.

Lewis and I (and probably you) have a lot in common: cycling, self expression, people and their peculiarities, fitness, coffee. Lewis doesn't drink, by the way, it screws up his meds. But he has opinions like you and I. Especially on the Holocaust, which seems to be the common theme in his household artwork. He says he doesn't have many friends, and the few that he does have provide him with a certain unconditional understanding, a ultimate giving/need trade off. Lewis seems surprised that one of his friends brings their children over to meet and get to know him, to experience his art, his mind and his musings.

I suppose Lewis trusts me with his story (not that he would care what anyone says about him) because I was nice to him once, while at a business meeting at the Starbucks at Linberg and Clayton Road--I tossed him a patch-kit when I noticed he had gotten a flat and he had no way to fix it. I had met him once before and remembered his peculiarity. He was making a spectacle of himself at the cashier station, the 65 year old athlete sporting a Heineken kit, around lunch time with his three thousand dollar Allez parked right inside the front door. He has never forgotten me being kind to him, nor others along the way. There is Mike Weiss at Big shark Bicycles, a handful of lawyers and those people who "don't give him the look" that impress him the most. Truth is, I feel I am the lucky one, he has reciprocated the patch kit deal with a spirited conversation every month or so, when I would run in to him near our homes. I look forward to visiting with Lewis in the years to come. I hope I can live up to his expectation and get a few things right when it comes to his "stuff". The key to communicating and being with Lewis Greenberg is to stay focused, one topic at a time, regardless of where the conversation goes.

I remember how uncomfortable I felt the first time we spoke, because I didn't want to cut him off in the middle of a sentence or thought. It is something that everyone does just to stay on track. Be assured, Lewis is OK with it. He knows he gets off on tangents. Sooner or later, you just have to say goodbye, so he doesn't take it personally. He is retired as well, 65 years old, a senior Olympian badass. He chooses not to act his age, another cool thing about Lewis.

My initial concern for not wanting to embarrass him or be rude to him (by cutting him off) is what Lewis appreciated most. He is a human being after all, and now that I know a little about him, I am OK with his unique personality and understand how to communicate with him. He knows he has issues. He lets you know that it is perfectly acceptable to help keep him focused on conversation, which grows in sinews from one topic to another, a spider web of thoughts and concerns.

Lewis is mentally ill, manic depressive, ADD, OCD....several conditions. He will tell you all about it. He is under the care of a couple of pretty tremendous doctors he says, all of whom he is proud of for their accomplishments with his case. It is obvious that Lewis's illness has shaped his journey through life. He takes six types of medications to keep things under control and still has ups and downs. He has settled in to a nice cocktail of prescribed mood enhancers that he has down to a science and that he is currently very comfortable with. His house is clean, organized and "balanced", like his art. I have seen Lewis on bad days, I try and keep an eye out for him, it is the unbalanced that he struggles with.

It is important for Lewis to tell us about his illness, because he wants us to take him as he is and others who might suffer the way he has. He wants us to understand why we need to cut him off from time to time. Why you need to redirect the conversation into having a beginning, a middle and an end. He wants to put it in your face that he is going to be a little high maintenance—that you will be taken aback. He doesn't have the time for you, if you are not willing to acknowledge his illness. His ramblings have meaning, a lot of friggin meaning. You have to hang on to the roller coaster to get the point, but there is very clear meaning.

Because he has struggled with his illness for so long, now is the time that his condition be better not hidden, not something hushed or swept under the rug. He wants us to know a few things: that it is a major problem with with him, a genuine disability, a struggle. He and a whole lot of others have to deal with his illness every day. He also wants us to know that he has rights, because George Bush did something significant to expand mental illness awareness to that which is considered protect-able. I am not sure where he was going with this, but we will explore it on another day.

Lewis appears bitter on most subjects, but that is who he is. Bitter is not the word that I would use to describe his passion for expression, the way he lives his life, full throttle, no plans, no direction. He is not capable of making phone calls, he waits for the phone to ring and begins the journey of the moment. We will have to come back to that too, on another day.

So Lewis can't help being the way that he is and feels no reason to be in the closet about it. He struggled with this for most of his life until a medication adjustment epiphany in 2001, when he began to make changes in the way he lived his life. His attitude changed when his wife and son left him. His medication changed keeping him from the dark, depressing box that he describes. He came out of his shell with his illness and about the world he lives in. He chooses now not to conform to the denial that was a part of his old life. Changes in his medication has provided Lewis a new lease, one that has inspired him to let it fly, to really get in touch with who he is and hang the flag out. Now it is as if his life is a canvas that he has begun the process of exhibiting. And with Lewis, if you don’t like the art, get off the lawn.

Prior to 2001, his life was a series of ups and downs, hospital stays, dark times of meager intellectual existence. Since he “came out” and with the help of his doctors, he has begun to live without guilt or remorse for who he really is. I get the feeling it ain't easy being Lewis Greenberg. The question is what came first, the personality or the prescription.

I hope to try and provide a glimpse, in the weeks to come, into Lewis's life. He is a very smart man, degrees from Washington University, Berkley, NYU. He is a kick ass artist, teacher, philosopher, cyclist and shit disturber. I hope to help tell some of the stories, put a few things in to perspective when it comes to his life. He has a couple of things to say and we agreed that my blog might be of use. Check back soon. Lots to share.


Brian said...

Awesome! You are my heroes.

kevin j said...

great profile of Lewis....we all see a bit of ourselves in him....scares some, fascinates some, and reveals a great deal if we allow it.

J.V. Cycling said...

This is going to be good

Clayton said...

I want to compliment you on your interview of Lewis, who happens to be my father. Yes, I am the "son" you talk about in your blog. Although I think your interview and article was great and did a good job highlighting my dad, I did want to correct a few things. Although my mother did leave him, I did NOT leave him. I am 33 years old, married, and my wife and I are expecting our first child in December. I moved from St. Louis after high school, to attend college, law school and now back in Dallas practicing law. I support my Dad 100% and think he art (which it is) is a wonderful expression and gives him happiness. My Dad deserves happiness. It is true that I have not seen my Dad since 2001, but we do have a relationship again. We talk every other week or so, and I appreciate your pictures, as these are some of the first pictures of the inside of my home that I have seen. More importantly, the pictures of my Dad are the first that I have seen in a long time. Thank you for that. I love my Dad, and he will always have a place in my families life, and I hope that he has the chance and desire to meet his grandchild in December. Keep up the Blog!!

Patrick L. said...

Man....I saw this story on the channel 4 news when I was at home visiting my family just this week, who live in Olivette, MO.....I hadn't seen who I used to call, Mr. Greenberg, in about 25 years. It didn't register who he was until I saw his name in the Post Dispatch, saw that he was a retired high school art teacher, and remember that he told our art class (30 years ago) that he had this house in which he displayed much of his artwork. I had never seen what he spoke of until I visited this site....amazing is all I can say.

I was lucky enough to have him as my junior high (1977-79) and high school art teacher (1979-82). I'll have to say that he was one of my most inspirational teachers (even more so than many of my college professors)....and I still speak about him to current friends 30 years after meeting him. All, I can say is that he encouraged my to see the world in a different way and to never give up on expressing myself artistically or creatively.

30 years later, I'm a licensed architect (one of the few African-American licensed architects in the U.S.) with close to 20 years of experience and I can truthfully say that I wouldn't have entered this "creative" profession without Lewis Greenberg's inspiring teaching and thoughts.

Ralph Pfremmer said...


Thanks for the correction. There is much to learn from subjects of true authenticity, like Lewis. As complicated as his life is, there is purpose. And just like everyone else, he is a human being. One of the most facinating in our region.

Anonymous said...

I loved reading about this. My mother used to teach with him and I remember meeting him in the late 80s in Lake St. Louis... He stopped at our house after a bike ride and was in yellow bicycle pants, I remember. I was in Junior High and I remember being turned off as a kid by how intense he was. He cursed like a sailor and I remember thinking, "doesn't he know there's a child in here?!" At any rate, my folks have since moved out of the St. Louis area and, last time I was in the United States, mom told me to look him up on the web and read about his art in the yard and the drama that ensued. What a hoot: a dim, seemingly insignificant memory from my past has had a life all it's own for the last 25 years or so and the internet is responsible!!!! Thanks for writing about him. I enjoyed reading it.

Freddy (Fred Bird) said...

I recently just had my first encounter with Lewis today in Ballwin, MO. Me and my girl friend were sitting outside of Lifetime fitness and he rolled up on his bike, it was truly a unique experience and I would love to get to know him better on a personal level. I could barely open my mouth to add to the conversation so I just sat there and downloaded as much information as I could. Great job on the article by the way, it really helped me understand Lewis Greenberg.

Freddy (Fred Bird) said...

I recently just had my first encounter with Lewis today in Ballwin, MO. Me and my girl friend were sitting outside of Lifetime fitness and he rolled up on his bike, it was truly a unique experience and I would love to get to know him better on a personal level. I could barely open my mouth to add to the conversation so I just sat there and downloaded as much information as I could. Great job on the article by the way, it really helped me understand Lewis Greenberg.